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Need for extraordinary security measures

The challenge is not that of formulating attack scenarios. It is trying to figure out how best to allocate security resources in an environment of uncertainty.

india Updated: Aug 13, 2003 19:12 IST

Aviation security has in the past relied upon a front-line defense. A proliferation of hijackings in the late 1960s and early 1970s mandated extraordinary security measures. Although sky marshals initially were deployed, a consensus was evolved that the best place to conduct security was on the ground before passengers boarded the aircraft.

In 1973, the US implemented 100 per cent passenger screening--controversial at the time-asking every passenger to pass through a metal detector, put their luggage through an X-ray machine, and submit, if requested, to a hand search.

On the aeroplane, the safest course of action was to keep the hijacker calm and get the plane back on the ground where authorities could deal with the problem. Compliance, not resistance, made sense and it did work to save lives on many occasions.

There is a need to develop a multi-layered defense system. The front line should comprise the passenger screening, and luggage inspection now done at airports, but with better performance. The deployment of explosive detection technology should be accelerated. Additional passenger inspections can be carried out at the gate.

Security measures on the plane can provide a second layer of defense. As it stands now, the biggest single improvement in security on the plane is the likelihood that any future hijacker will be beaten senseless by desperate passengers. Measures may include air marshals, sealed cockpits and armoured cockpit doors.

The fact that pilots want to be armed betrays the lack of confidence in the current security structure by those who fly the planes. Should they be? It is an option. Certainly, no future adversary should be allowed to think that they might not be.

Technology offers a last line of defense. We can install technology to ensure that only an authorised member of the crew is at the controls. Upon a duress signal from the pilot or a significant deviation from the flight path, we can remotely switch on audio and video monitoring of the cockpit to see the situation. The technology also exists to disconnect whoever is in the cockpit and land the plane by remote control, although the safety of that approach needs to be demonstrated.

A more professional security force is prerequisite to any significant improvement in aviation security. The current screening force is haphazardly recruited, unscreened, underpaid, inadequately trained and poorly motivated to do a very difficult job.

Common perception about screening is that it is easy. It isn't. There is nothing inherently wrong with those who perform this difficult task, and in some places they do an excellent job, but performance is patchy. The problem is systemic. Competitive bidding for security contracts and high turnover rates among personnel encourage cutting corners.

Making aviation security a career: One option is to create a professional national service encompassing screeners, ramp guards and air marshals, thus providing opportunities to make aviation security a career.

Training can be conducted in a more creative way than mere classroom instruction. Realistic testing can prevent boredom and complacency and at the same time provide opportunities to offer instant cash rewards and points for promotion. National competitions can be held--a security Olympics.

Performance can be made a matter of personal pride and a means to personal advancement. We certainly can turn volunteers into a dedicated security force.

To do so will require a new organisational approach. We must consider every option except the continuation of the current contract-to-the-lowest-bidder system: A federal force has some advantages. A quasi-public aviation security authority also is a possibility in order to allow review, but not inappropriate industry or political influence over its staff. The era of overt and covert industry influence has to end.

First Published: Jul 31, 2003 13:25 IST